The Middle East: A Divided Region

A Middle-Eastern sunset. [Photo: David Silverman/Getty Image]

Sectarianism & Conflict in The Middle East

The Middle East is wracked with conflict. The region has struggled to remain truly stable since the fall of the previously hegemonic Ottoman Empire in the 1920’s. The combination of European colonial influence and competition between the region’s powerhouses has sown instability and discord. Since the beginning of the Arab Spring in 2011, sectarianism has increasingly been fingered as the primary suspect for conflict by Western policy-makers. The continued collapse of Syria and a renewed focus on the Iranian and Saudi Arabian rivalry has also pushed the so-called ‘sectarian divide’ into the media spotlight. Whilst the split between Sunni and Shia Islam is real and it does have a regional impact, the media and policy makers need to be wary of assuming all political decisions in the region are religiously based. It’s easy to understand the appeal of the Sunni vs. Shia narrative to the Western media, being wrongly, yet easily, comparable to Christian sectarian violence during the medieval period. The notion of the Middle East’s problems being rooted in centuries old conflict also helps absolve the West of some of its part to play in the conflict through its colonial legacy. It also allows for distance to be put between the fact that atrocities are taking place in countries modelled on and allied with the West.

To better understand the role of sectarianism in the region, a better understanding of what caused the splintering of Islam in the first place is useful. The schism is based more on religious politics rather than theological debate and stems from the debate over who would lead Islam after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. Shias believed that the successor to Muhammad should come from his own family, that they possessed the necessary traits to charismatically lead Islam. Sunnis believe, however, that the successor of Muhammad shouldn’t necessarily be a descendant of the prophet; instead, any Muslim could lead the Islamic community. Ultimately, following the death of Muhammad, the Sunnis were successful, with the first three Caliphs (literally, ‘successors’) not being descendants of the prophet. Conflict between the two factions broke out however upon the death of the fourth Caliph, Alī ibn Abī Tālib (“Ali”), who was the son-in-law of the prophet. The continued push by Shias for the next Caliph to be a descendent of Ali, and the Sunnis continued opposition culminated in the Battle of Karbala in 680CE. The result was a decisive victory for the Sunni Umayyad Empire and set the groundwork for the emergence of Sunni states with substantial Shia minorities.

The geographical distribution of both groups has varied immensely since this period, but the current divisions are largely as a result of the imperial borders of the Ottoman Empire. The lands that the Sunni Ottomans ruled over remain majority Sunni today, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan and Yemen. This seeming uniformity, however, belies a more difficult relationship between the authorities of those countries and their large Shia minorities. This tension has been a key driver of conflict in the region in the past few decades. The primary Shia power in the region is occupied by Iran, which, following the downfall of Saddam Hussein, has been joined by the Shia led Iraq as the bulwark of Shia Islam. Iran hasn’t always been Shia however; it was only following the overthrowing of the Sunni monarchy in 1979 that Iran rose to prominence as the protector of the often-marginalised Shia minorities across the region. This is where the Shia-Sunni split begins, in recent years, to take on a more geo-political role, which impacts not only the Middle East, but also much of the world.

The rise of the explicitly Sunni so-called Islamic State and the reaction that this inspired in Shi’ite Iran shows the continued ability of sectarianism to create conflict. The countries where religious conflict is most clear are Iraq and Syria. In both countries, the regimes had been able to put a lid on sectarian conflict, largely through the brutal suppression. However, the collapse of regimes, wholly in Iraq and largely in Syria, has created a power vacuum where extremism has thrived. This power vacuum has allowed the regions powers to embark on a series of proxy wars, in particular between Saudi Arabia and Iran. However, it is here where the difficulty of understanding a region wholly through a religious lens becomes clear.

The conflicts in Iraq and Syria between the Islamic State and the governments and militias in the countries takes on a more religious tone, particularly in Iraq where the Shia majority are, not always successfully, battling Islamic State. The Iranian government, who fear the establishment of a Sunni Caliphate so close to the Iranian border, is supporting the government in Baghdad militarily; Islamic State controlled Mosul is less than 250km away from the border. The conflict there takes on both a sectarian and geopolitical guise, especially when we consider the role of Sunni moderates in fighting Islamic State. The same can be seen in Syria, where Iran is propping up the regime of Bashar Al Assad, whose support primarily comes from the Alawite minority, a sect of Shia Islam. Tehran’s support for Damascus, however, may boil down more to loyalty and anti-Americanism than any religious kinship. Syria has long had a frosty relationship with Israel and the West and supported Iran in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980’s. So, Iran can now be seen as paying back the favour with arms, money and troops through its proxy Hezbollah, which has partly left its Lebanese stronghold to support the Assad regime.

It is the Saudi-Iranian relationship though where geopolitical gain is the ultimate goal. Despite a surprising similarity with the religious convictions of Islamic State, the House of Saud refuses outright to condone or support the Caliphate’s efforts. This is partly because of attacks by Islamic State affiliates in Saudi Arabia itself. One in May this year in Al-Qadeeh killed over 20 people. Support of Islamic State is also toxic in international circles, with condemnation of its actions coming from all over the globe. Religious affiliation isn’t the only driving force of Middle Eastern decision making.

Whilst rising world powers such as China have tread a carefully non-interventionist policy in the Middle East, the old guard of America, Europe and Russia are often compelled to act because of not only an interest in the economic potential of the region, but also a shared history of intervention in much of the Middle East. Indeed, the ability of the Middle East to dominate foreign policy agendas around the world is a unique trait of the region. This makes understanding the forces that shape its politics and decision-making all the more important. It is clear that the sectarian divisions, which have recently come to the fore of media coverage of regional events, don’t tell the whole story. The Middle East needn’t be portrayed as a region stuck in the Middle Ages, where religion plays some hegemonic role in decision-making. Such a presentation ignores the role of the outside world in shaping the modern day Middle East and belittles the nuanced nature of Middle eastern politics.

The interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have cast a long shadow, with legislative bodies increasingly blocking military intervention of any type. Therefore, Western leaders and their diplomats will have to become evermore forensic in their diplomatic efforts. Not placing the Sunni-Shia divide in its appropriate context risks hampering this and leading to the West becoming evermore impotent in its efforts to bring stability to a troubled region.

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